Mikko Hirvonen heads into the second day of competition on the Rally New Zealand with a comfortable 27.8secs margin, although it is Sebastien Loeb who would have been leading had starter motor problems not lumbered him with a 30secs penalty.

With heavy rain fall prior to the event making conditions even more treacherous than usual, keeping the car on the road proved to be the primary challenge for the 14 WRC runners, although that didn't stop a familiar looking order emerging from day one.

Of the seven stages, Hirvonen and Loeb shared three wins each, with Jari-Matti Latvala breaking their dominance when he claimed victory on the first stage of the rally.

It is Hirvonen who has the advantage though, the Finn winning the split second stage (classified as SS2 and SS3) before ending the day on top around the short Mystery Creek seventh stage. Consistency has been Hirvonen's strength too as he has not been classified outside the top two all day.

"I've had a good day and I've never had such a good rhythm on these roads before. Obviously being first on the road won't be so easy tomorrow, but I'm sure it's going to be okay. All I can do is try my best. People want to see the same sort of close battle as last year - well it looks like it's going to happen."

While Hirvonen went about his business in a typically untroubled fashion, Loeb, on the other hand, endured a far more eventful day. Having nearly rolled on SS1 when he cut a corner too sharply, a rattled Loeb was more than ten seconds adrift after the first loop of stages, but struck back in the afternoon by pulling off three stage wins in a row.

By right he should have taken the lead from Hirvonen had it not been for an errant starter problem, one that had the Frenchman shuffling under the bonnet of his Citroen for three minutes immediately prior to SS6. The delay cost him 30secs in penalties and leaves him staring at a fair gap to make up.

Loeb did, however, move to quell speculation that the problem may have been a cover for something rather more tactical as the road order is expected to prove significant over the two remaining days.

"I just hit the starter button and it didn't work," he said. "We tried everything. In the end we rolled the car back, pushed it and finally got it going. It had nothing to do with tactics."

Loeb's problems leave him marginally ahead of team-mate Dani Sordo and Latvala, the Citroen and Ford 'second-drivers' currently scrapping over third place.

The Spaniard got the nod on the final stage of the day to move onto the provisional podium, although Latvala will start ahead of him on the road courtesy of the road order being decided after SS6. This came despite Latvala's attempts to dodge the problem by stopping before the end of the stage, only to lose a lot of time yet still remain a mere four tenths up on Sordo.

"It means a fantastic road position for tomorrow," Sordo said. "But Latvala is close behind so I will try to hold my position. It won't be easy but I will take some risks."

Unsurprisingly, with the factory Ford and Citroen teams trading times at the front of the field, the following pack have fallen behind considerably, with Francois Duval now assuming best of the rest status, 1min 27.9secs down the road.

"It's my first time with this car on these tyres and so far it's been really good," the Belgian revealed. "Tomorrow I'll try a softer set-up to try and find some more grip but it's okay. Jari is quite far ahead now, but I'll be watching out for Aava behind me."

Chris Atkinson had been doing the best job of keeping the leaders honest but despite some promising initial times in the developing Subaru Impreza, he crashed on SS4 and was forced into retirement. As such, Duval is a fine fifth in the Stobart Ford Focus after a relatively quiet day bridging the gap between the works teams and the satellite outfits.

Top privateer once again was Urmo Aava, the Estonian driver claiming a couple of top five stage times to hold a good sixth place overall at the end of the day in his PH-Sport Citroen C4. Aava had briefly took the fight to Duval, but eventually dropped back to the point where Petter Solberg is now in striking distance, 24secs adrift.

Solberg experienced a considerably better afternoon after a terrible morning that left him down in tenth place. Even so, while the Norwegian is now Subaru's only contender left in the rally, he is yet to match the early pace of team-mate Atkinson.

While it is perhaps a reflection of how difficult Suzuki's first full season in the WRC has been to say that it was a surprise to see both cars comfortably inside the top ten, Per-Gunnar Andersson's eighth and Toni Gardemeister's ninth still represented a very positive story to come out of day one.

Andersson was the Japanese manufacturer's star turn as he showed what he is capable of with a car not hamstrung by mechanical problems. A pair of top five stage times duly rewarded him with a spot inside the points.

Gardemeister, meanwhile, sits just behind Andersson in ninth, although he would probably be further up the order had he not suffered a puncture on the first stage. Federico Villagra rounds out the top ten in his Munchi's Focus, while Conrad Rautenbach is classified as the last of the WRC runners not to suffer problems in 11th.

Of the other three, beyond Atkinson, Ford drivers Henning Solberg and Matthew Wilson suffered at the whim of technical woes, leaving both playing a catch-up game.

Solberg went three stages with power steering issues to lose seven and a half minutes, while a further one minute penalty for leaving the service park late added insult to injury. The Norwegian, driving for Munchi's this weekend, began setting top ten times towards the end of the day but he is well down in 28th place overall.

Even so, at least he is still running, which is more than can be said for Wilson, who was forced to retire with gearbox problems on SS5. Up to that point the young Brit had been disputing the final point with the Suzukis, but will now need to re-enter through SupeRally to continue his weekend.

In the Production WRC class, Marco Baldacci has led the way for much of the day, although he is coming under increasing pressure from Martin Prokop, the Czech driver gradually scaling the timesheets to move to within ten seconds of his rival.

Leader after SS1, Fumio Nutahara, remains a solid third just two seconds behind Prokop, while 17-year-old Russian driver Evgeny Novikov is just behind in fourth ensuring that this is a class that could go any which way.

Meanwhile, title contenders Andreas Aigner and Juho Hanninen began making their way up the leaderboard after earlier delays. Championship leader Aigner is now up to 13th, while Hanninen in 11th.